More people are alive over 65 than under five: it’s time to rethink old age
As Goethe wrote, “Age takes hold of us by surprise.” For most of human history, average global life expectancy has never exceeded 30 years. Though we rarely think about it, the great figures of history have almost always died young: Cleopatra at 39; Alexander the Great at 32; Jesus in his early 30s. People lived long enough to produce and protect children; even long enough to seize a throne, found an empire, or create a global religion. But, even in the absence of asps, ague or the Romans, not long enough to grow old.
Things changed, at least for those of us in the wealthy West, in the 1870s. Between 1870 and 1970 our lifespans more than doubled, to an average of 70. Today in Australia, we boast one of the highest life expectancies in the world: 82.5 years. Indeed, in countries like ours, life is lengthening by more than five hours a day, every day; if you make it to 65, you have a 50 per cent chance of living another 20 years. And future generations seem likely to do even better: a third of all babies born in the West in 2016 will live to see their 100th birthday.
It’s hard to get to grips with this reality, either as a society or as individuals. British gerontology professor Alan Walker suggests that when it comes to ageing, public policy – as it relates to employment, care services and living arrangements – “lags behind our lived experience by at least 20 years”. In Australia, the news emerging from the Royal Commission into Aged Care – which is due to release its interim report this month – has been shocking, revealing the neglect, abuse and depression of some our most vulnerable older people.
The problems of ageing are real. There is the inevitable decline of the body and mind, and the problems of living longer with this decline: who will care for us, and where, and how we will pay for it? But just because problems are real doesn’t mean we face them. The fact is, we don’t like to think about ageing; indeed, we can barely believe it’s ever going to happen – not to us. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Coming of Age, when she was 62, “Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species.”
No less a speculative thinker than Sigmund Freud reported feeling horrified when he realised that the elderly gentleman he’d glimpsed in the train window was actually his own reflection; and Gloria Steinem – surely a world away from Freud in every other respect – echoed this feeling when she confessed her shock that, “one day, I woke up and there was a 70-year-old woman in my bed.”
But we’re going to have to get over our surprise, and our prejudices about ageing, if only for the most selfish of reasons: because we’re now more likely than ever before to get old ourselves. In this country, everyone alive today is part of an unprecedented moment in human history: the first time there are more people on earth aged over 65 years than under five.
“In the past century we’ve created the greatest gift in the history of humanity: 30 extra years of life,” noted Joseph Coughlin, founder of research organisation AgeLab, based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earlier this year. “Yet we don’t know what to do with it.”
In writing about older characters, novelist Charlotte Wood strives to avoid the clichéd “immobilised, sick, lost, static figure”.Credit:James Brickwood
Award-winning novelist Charlotte Wood lives in a wooden-floored house filled with beautiful art – two Lucy Cullitons in the sitting room – in Sydney’s inner west. She’s slim and dark-eyed and, clichéd as it seems, looks ageless. (She’s 54.) Though she’s just written a thoughtful, funny book about three women in their 70s, old age is something she’s only recently begun thinking about – mostly because, like Cleopatra, she never imagined getting old.
“Both my parents died in their 50s,” she explains. “And I guess I thought I would, too. I thought I’d be lucky if I got to 60, and I’d better rush around and do everything before then. And then it suddenly occurred to me, ‘What if I don’t die young? What if I get old? How will I do that?’ ”
Her upcoming novel, The Weekend, describes a long weekend during which three friends – an actress, an academic, a restaurateur – gather to pack up a fourth friend’s holiday home after her death. The great challenge in writing it, Wood acknowledges, was lifting her characters out of the standard clichés of old age. “So often in books and TV, anyone over 70 is this kind of immobilised, depressed, sick, lost, static figure.” (According to a 2017 survey of Oscar Best Picture nominations for the previous three years, only 12 per cent of 1256 speaking or named characters were aged 60 or older.)
“We also think of old people as obsessed with the past,” she adds. “But thinking about the people I know – especially my partner Sean’s mum, who died a couple of years ago – that really wasn’t the case. She was not interested in the past. Her life was very urgently about the present, and the future. So I wanted to write a book about old age that wasn’t about the past, and people sitting on a couch saying, ‘Oh, remember when it was 1963 and everything was great?’ ”
In fact, research suggests people might well be doing exactly the opposite. Multiple scientific studies have confirmed the validity of the “the U-curve of happiness” – a theory of life satisfaction from youth to old age showing that, regardless of culture or socioeconomic status, the majority of people are at their most miserable in middle age (awesome!), and getting happier from their 50s onwards.
This has certainly been the case for Wood. “Oh yes,” she exclaims. “I just feel so much happier – and healthier and smarter and more confident – at 54 than I did at 24. I can’t stand that idea that once you’re old you just miss everything you had when you were young. I’m so glad not to be in my 20s anymore!”
Nor, necessarily, does ageing represent the blasted heath of health disaster that we might imagine. Of course, as Germaine Greer has remarked, “Nobody ages like anybody else,” and people vary infinitely in their capacities and challenges. But generally, say the scientists, things are more positive than we might think. We anticipate the “negative benchmarks” associated with ageing, for instance – memory loss, illness, an end to sexual activity – at much higher levels than older people actually report experiencing them. (This may in fact be a phenomenon of our modern, youth-obsessed era – in the 18th century, Princess Elizabeth Charlotte of France was asked when sexual desire ended. “How would I know?” she’s recorded as replying. “I’m only 80.”)
Globally, meanwhile, the incidence of all forms of dementia – one of our greatest age-related fears – is only between 5 and 8 per cent for those over 60. And while the numbers do increase dramatically with age (about one in four people have some form of dementia at age 85; one in two post-95), at a population level we’re experiencing compressed morbidity, which means we’re remaining healthier for longer, with a concentration of illnesses right at the end of our lives. Indeed, thanks to modern medicine, nutrition and exercise, some scientists suggest we should now think of our chronological age as equivalent to a decade younger during our parents’ lives. Thus today’s 60-year-old may have the health profile – the “biological age” – of a 50-year-old a generation ago.
In real terms, this means that older people are often a lot more capable than our cultural stereotypes suggest. The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health is a survey of more than 57,000 women’s mental and physical health across their adult lives. Professor Julie Byles is head of the Priority Research Centre for Generational Health and Ageing at Newcastle University, and a director of the study. She says that, according to survey results, 14 per cent of women aged between 85 and 90 are still able “to engage in activities such as housework, lifting or carrying groceries, climbing several flights of stairs, or walking more than one kilometre, and sometimes in more vigorous activities such as running and lifting heavy objects”.
A further 30 per cent are at this level at the age of 70-75 years, and “though their functional ability declines, at 85-90 they are still able to undertake most daily activities and get around”. In other words, almost half of women are still independent and self-sufficient, even at up to 90 years of age.
“The reality is that most people are fine,” says Keryn Curtis, a journalist and communications consultant on ageing issues, founding editor of Australian Ageing Agenda magazine, and a committee member of the NSW executive of the Australian Association of Gerontology. “We have this assumption that being older is all about decline and loss and sadness and ugliness. There’s this terrible thought of ‘when my turn comes’.
“Well, shit happens, and things might be bad. But for most of us, it’s not that bad. We’re terrified about aged care, for instance” – what American anti-ageism campaigner Ashton Applewhite calls “drooling in some grim institutional hallway” – “but the fact is, most Australians die in their own homes.”
In 2017, only 6 per cent of people over 65 (less than 1 per cent of our total population) were in permanent residential aged care in Australia. Even so, concerns raised in the royal commission and elsewhere in recent years have seen the start of a movement searching for new ways to live as an older person.
From top left, clockwise: Carl Jung, Simone de Beauvoir, Henri Matisse, Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem.Credit:Alamy
Charlotte Wood has been thinking about exactly this for years. “A friend and I had this very 30-something fantasy of getting together with all our friends and creating this groovy, hipster commune-cum-nursing home,” she laughs. “We genuinely talked about it quite a bit with various people, and I remember thinking about it a lot – especially, perhaps, because I don’t have children. If you have children, at least you have the fantasy that they might look after you!”
Keryn Curtis, who is 55, has gone one step further. Along with a core group of friends and about 150 interested members, she’s founded the AGEncy project, a co-housing plan in Sydney’s inner west, which plans to build a bricks-and-mortar answer to many of the challenges of ageing.
Most members are in their 50s and 60s, though some are older, and the project provides a forum through which members intend to pool their resources to build homes – probably groups of townhouses or apartments – centred around communal spaces (a dining room, a garden), in which people can live independently, with mobility challenges catered for, surrounded by a friendly support network. Run as strata plans, rather than the “corporate rip-off schemes” of some retirement villages, an AGEncy-built community won’t be a commune (everyone has their own income and private life) but, says Curtis, it will protect people from the cascade of small problems that often lead to loss of agency in later life.
A small group of members, including Curtis, is actively seeking a site at present, and hope to begin building soon: a recent possibility in inner-western Sydney’s Rozelle fell through due to planning decisions, but Curtis and others are genuinely committed – as you’d expect when the projected investment for each dwelling is estimated to be between $800,000 and $1.5 million. “It depends on size and location,” Curtis says, “as well as the decisions individual groups make about facilities. But that’s still way below the market price because there are no developers [or for-profit companies] involved.”
Projects like AGEncy give people the chance to transition from their mid-life homes to something more manageable as they age. As Curtis explained recently, if “home is a house 50 metres from the neighbour, that can become incredibly isolating”. Social isolation – or loneliness –is a significant risk factor to health as we age. “Loneliness has strong correlations with increased risk of heart disease and stroke, with obesity, high blood pressure, depression and dementia.” Indeed, she adds, loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26 per cent. “It has a similar risk impact to smoking tobacco.”
Positivity, in contrast, has the opposite effect. In 2002, a study of 660 participants by Yale researchers showed that older people with a more positive perception of ageing lived, on average, 7½ years longer than their more demoralised counterparts; and this advantage remained even after age, gender, socio-economic status, loneliness and functional health were taken into account.
But it’s not only our domestic and social environments that need alteration. “It’s the holy trinity: housing, health and wealth,” says Curtis. In basic terms, living longer costs more – so either we, or our societies, have to come up with more money to support us as we age.
And yet, according to a 2013 report by the UK Nesta innovation foundation, Western working environments – not to mention our assumptions about our working lives – are almost universally predicated on shorter life-spans. As the report’s authors state, in the West “the labour market is built on assumptions that people could expect [only] three healthy years at retirement. This concept is clearly inadequate for the several decades of reasonably healthy life we can now expect beyond 60.” The report concludes: “We cannot, for older people’s mental, physical and economic health, as well as for the wider economy, have a majority of the population economically inactive for almost half of their lifespan. It just doesn’t add up.”
Older people are often a lot more capable than our cultural stereotypes suggest. Credit:Getty Images
Even if we achieve the goals of living better and working longer into old age, one question remains – an existential one, at that. What is the purpose of old age? What is it for? As Carl Jung put it, human beings as a species would not be capable of living to 70 or 80, or even longer, if such longevity had no meaning to our species. “The afternoon of life must also have a significance of its own,” he wrote. “It cannot merely be a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.”
One theory that appeals to Charlotte Wood is that of Jungian theorist James Hillman, who suggests that the purpose of human life is “to become more fully ourselves”. Growing older, he believes, is a valuable opportunity to become and understand more fully who we are. This might sound self-absorbed, but as Wood points out, perhaps such full expression of personality across the course of a long life has something to teach us all about human flexibility and adaptation.
“I always think of Henri Matisse doing his paper cutouts,” she says. “That’s a case of beautiful adaptation: a whole new creative enterprise out of what could have been a devastating diminution.” Confined to a wheelchair at the end of his life, lacking the physical capacity to paint, the French artist began creating works with pieces of cut-out coloured paper, and in the process contributed something unique to the canon of Western art. Indeed, according to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it was in this final work that Matisse “achieved the height of his creative powers”.
Of course, not all of us are artistic geniuses. But according to Professor Christine Stirling, nursing academic at the University of Tasmania and Australian Association of Gerontology president, many of us develop a capacity for deep thinking and problem-solving as we age. “Older people tend to be more accepting,” she says. “My observation, having spent a lot of time as a community nurse, is that they don’t sweat the small stuff so much. And so, while they might think more slowly, they often have more nuanced, complex ideas.”
Such ideas might have particular value in our increasingly frenetic, short-term-focused world. They might even change the world. As Dr Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology at Stanford University and founding director of the Stanford Centre on Longevity, states, “Societies with millions of talented, emotionally stable citizens, who are healthier and better educated than any generations before them, armed with knowledge of the practical matters of life, and motivated to solve the big issues, can be better societies than we have ever known.”
Who can tell? As Virginia Woolf put it in The Years, “Old age they say is like this; but it isn’t. It’s different.”
To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.
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